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A Language Barrier Is a Safety Barrier—How to Avoid the Liability

Translation service concept on laptop keyboard

By 2030, the global labor force is expected to reach 3.5 billion people, according to a report by McKinsey Global Institute. That means millions more people will be expected to work together across the world with operational continuity. As a result, multinational organizations will need safety management systems that account for the linguistic, cultural and individual differences of a global workforce. And many companies have a multicultural workforce whether they’re international or not.

It’s not enough just to provide training—OSHA and other agencies that govern national workforces require that all workers must understand the safety training materials they have been provided by their employer. Naturally, people prefer to learn and do business in their own native language, and in 2014, OSHA estimated that a language barrier contributed to 25% of job-related accidents.

Some companies implement English-only policies to ensure information is easily shared globally—even though English is not universally understood. Duolingo has found that English is the most popular language of study in 116 out of 194 countries. But just because someone can speak or write in a language does not mean they are completely fluent or have the ability to fully process information provided in that language.

Of course, there’s a potentially sizeable price tag that goes along with implementing a specialized program with multilingual training material. Often, the cost is enough to dissuade companies from pursuing these types of options. At the same time, the cost of an accident or government fine can be substantially more than what a corporation would spend on training in multiple languages.

Here are some tips to ensure that the safety training you deliver is received the way it is intended:

Workplace champions

Identify a workplace safety champion to oversee training. It’s especially hard with a global workforce for corporate leadership to be present to monitor day-to-day training. One potential solution is to empower on-site champions to intervene and help in a situation where training hasn’t come through as intended. A major upside to this approach is that safety champions will speak the local language and can mediate any translation issues or misunderstandings.

If it’s hard to identify a workplace safety champion to take on this task, why not pair up newer employees with seasoned employees that speak the same language? This is an easy way to strengthen the workplace safety culture. It will also help the safety rules and language to be better understood in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Hands-on training

Training isn’t particularly effective when it’s all talk and no action. Hands-on safety training was found to be the most effective way to engage participants over 79% of the time.

When training is demonstrated in a way that doesn’t require a fluent understanding of the language, the safety lesson will be better understood. Whenever possible, use props or safety equipment. Not only is it fun but it’s a great way to demonstrate your point. When the training is finished, ask workers to demonstrate what they learned to ensure overall comprehension was attained. Or better yet, have them train you on the subject.

Picture this

A picture is worth a thousand words—especially when it comes to safety training. Much like how hands-on training physically demonstrates the teaching point, linking the learning concepts to a picture helps participants see the issues more clearly.

Think about a set of instructions for assembling something. Even though you have the written instructions clearly worded on how to put it together, sometimes the only way you truly understand what you’re doing is to mimic the diagram provided with the written instructions.  The same is true for safety signage—all signs should use symbols to avoid any language barriers.

Multi-language organizations face many safety training challenges. Following these simple steps can put businesses on the right path to maximize safety (and avoid a potential liability).

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